Christian saint credited as a founder of monasticism, famous for his temptations by the Devil and his Demons. Anthony means “inestimable.” Saint Anthony is also known as Anthony or Antony of Egypt, Anthony of the Desert, and Anthony the Abbott. The account of his life and Demonic torments was recorded by his friend St. Athanasius, patriarch of the church at Alexandria, Egypt, in Vita S. Antoni (Life of St. Anthony). The temptations of Anthony were a popular subject for medieval artists.
Anthony was born in 251 to Christian parents in the village of Coma (or Koman) south of Memphis in Upper Egypt, during a time of persecutions ordered by the Roman emperor Decius. His fearful parents kept him at home, unread and ignorant of any languages except his own. His parents died when he was about 20, leaving him a large estate and charged with the care of his younger sister. About six months later, Anthony was moved by the Christian Gospels to change his life radically. He took to heart Matthew 19:21, “Go, sell what thou hast, give it to the poor and thou shalt have treasure in heaven,” and so sold all of his estate except what he and his sister needed to live on, and distributed the proceeds to the poor. Then he acted upon Matthew 6:34, “Be not solicitous for tomorrow,” and gave away the rest. He placed his sister in a house of maidens and pious women, the first recorded description of a nunnery, and around 272 began a life of solitude. Anthony’s first retreat was in the Libyan desert, not far from his home, where he lived in an abandoned tomb. He usually ate only after sunset, his meal consisting of bread with a little salt, and water to drink. Sometimes he would not eat for three or four days. He slept on a rush mat or the bare floor and spent his days in prayer, reading, and manual labor. He endured fierce Demonic assaults. After emerging triumphant from the temptations, in about 285, Anthony crossed the Nile River to live in the abandoned ruins of a mountain fort, where he stayed in almost total isolation for 20 years. He rarely had human contact except for the man who delivered bread to him every six months, but nevertheless he attracted the faithful and the curious. Anthony finally went down from the mountain in 305, at age 54, to respond to the entreaties of his followers and founded the first monastery, at Fayum. Anthony spent the remainder of his life working for the Christian cause, punctuated with periods of solitude. In 311, he went to Alexandria to comfort martyrs prior to their executions, somehow escaping arrest himself. He founded another monastery, Pirpir, in the desert and then went to Mount Kolzim to live in a cell in isolation with his disciple, Macarius. He wore a hair shirt and did not bathe. He then joined a company of followers to give them instruction in the monastic life.
In 355, he returned to Alexandria to oppose the Arian heresy, which held that Jesus was not divine but human. He was hugely popular with Christians and pagans alike.
In 356, at age 105, he returned to his refuge at Mount Kolzim. He fell ill and directed his disciples to bury him secretly at Kolzim beside his followers Macarius and Amathas and send his cloak to Athanasius. Anthony then lay down, assured his disciples that his body would rise incorruptible in the Resurrection, and stopped breathing. In 561, his remains supposedly were discovered and moved first to Alexandria, then to Constantinople, then finally to Vienne, France, during the Crusades.
Demonic Temptations As soon as Anthony decided to give away his wealth and retreat into the desert, he was beset by the Devil, who spoke to him and tried to lure him back to a life of material comfort and glory. Anthony resisted, and the Devil increased his torments, by day and night, so much so that others became aware of what was happening. Anthony held to his fasting and prayer. Most severe were the sexual seductions attempted. According to Athanasius, his biographer:
And the devil, unhappy wight, one night even took upon him the shape of a woman and imitated all her acts simply to beguile Antony [sic]. But he, his mind filled with Christ and the nobility inspired by Him, and considering the spirituality of the soul, quenched the coal of the other’s deceit. Again the enemy suggested the ease of pleasure. But he like a man filled with rage and grief turned his thoughts to the threatened fire and the gnawing worm, and setting these in array against his adversary, passed through the temptation unscathed. All this was a source of shame to his foe. For he, deeming himself like God, was now mocked by a young man; and he who boasted himself against flesh and blood was being put to flight by a man in the flesh.
The Devil did not give up easily, however, and then appeared in the form of a black boy, who seemed humble and apologetic. He identified himself as “the friend of whoredom” and “the spirit of lust” and acknowledged that Anthony had often bested him. Anthony rebuked Demons tempting St. Anthony (AUTHOR’S COLLECTION) him, saying, “Thou art very despicable then, for thou art black-hearted and weak as a child. Henceforth I shall have no trouble from thee, ‘for the Lord is my helper, and I shall look down on mine enemies.’ ” The Devil left. Once the Devil sent a horde of hyenas to attack Anthony. He told them that if they had genuine power over him, he was ready to be devoured, but if they had been sent by the Devil, they could not harm him. The hyenas departed.
One day while he wove baskets, a man with the feet and legs of an ass appeared with other evil spirits. Anthony repelled them with the sign of the cross and the name of Christ. They fled into the desert, and the assfooted leader fell and died.
On another occasion, the frustrated Devil arrived with a multitude of Demons and beat Anthony so severely that he lay on the ground senseless from the excessive pain; he was found after several days by a friend who arrived with his bread. At first, the friend thought he was dead. Seeing him still alive, the friend carried Anthony to the village church and laid him on the ground. A group of people gathered around and kept vigil as though by a corpse. At midnight, the saint roused and asked to be returned to his tomb.
Anthony said that “the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment,” according to Athanasius. But worse was to come. The tomb shook as though in an earthquake, and Demons in the forms of animals and insects poured in: lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, and scorpions. They made a ferocious racket and feigned as if to attack him. According to Athanasius:
But Antony, stricken and goaded by them, felt bodily pains severer still. He lay watching, however, with unshaken soul, groaning from bodily anguish; but his mind was clear, and as in mockery he said, “If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord hath made you weak you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.” And again with boldness he said, “If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.” So after many attempts they gnashed their teeth upon him, because they were mocking themselves rather than him. After a period of these assaults, the roof of the tomb suddenly opened and a ray of light appeared, and the Demons vanished. Anthony was free of pain. He asked God why he was so slow to respond to him. God replied that he wanted to see Anthony’s fight. Now that Anthony had won, God said, “I will ever be a succor to thee, and will make thy name known everywhere.”
Still Anthony was not free of Demonic assault. When he journeyed to the abandoned mountain fort to take up isolation, the Devil tempted him with a beautiful silver dish lying in his path. As soon as Anthony pronounced it a snare of the Devil, it vanished, “like smoke from the face of fire.” The Devil next tried real gold strewn about, but Anthony hurried past it.
Anthony would allow no one inside the fort; his followers left his food outside. Often, it was reported, they would hear a horrible din of voices inside, telling Anthony he could not withstand their attack and he should leave. Anthony told them the voices belonged to Demons, but he was not troubled by them.
Anthony’s Views on Demons
When Anthony emerged from the mountain fort after 20 years in isolation, he was in perfect health and spoke to the public with compelling grace. He taught people about Demons. Anthony described them as beings of the air not far from humans, great in number, and with many distinctions among them. They were not originally evil: The Demons have not been created like what we mean when we call them by that name for God made nothing evil, but even they have been made good. Having fallen, however, from the heavenly wisdom, since then they have been groveling on earth. On the one hand they deceived the Greeks with their displays [of foretelling the future], while out of envy of us Christians they move all things in their desire to hinder us from entry into the heavens; in order that we should not ascend up thither from whence they fell. Thus there is need of much prayer and of discipline, that when a man has received through the Spirit the gift of discerning spirits, he may have power to recognize their characteristics: which of them are less and which more evil; of what nature is the special pursuit of each, and how each of them is overthrown and cast out. For their villainies and the changes in their plots are many.
Anthony said that Demons attacked all Christians, and particularly monks, first with evil thoughts, then with sexual seduction, and then with fearsome monsters and animalistic shapes. Demons lie in concealment and enter homes stealthily through the air. They can appear in deceitful guises, including as Angels, monks, and holy men, who rouse sleeping people and exhort them to prayer—but then claim that prayer is useless. If lower Demons do not succeed, they call in a leader. He described more examples from his own experiences:
Once a Demon exceeding high appeared with pomp, and dared to say, “I am the power of God and I am Providence, what dost thou wish that I shall give thee?” But I then so much the more breathed upon him, and spoke the name of Christ, and set about to smite him. And I seemed to have smitten him, and forthwith he, big as he was, together with all his Demons, disappeared at the name of Christ. At another time, while I was fasting, he came full of craft, under the semblance of a monk, with what seemed to be loaves, and gave me counsel, saying, “Eat and cease from thy many labors. Thou also art a man and art like to fall sick.” But I, perceiving his device, rose up to pray; and he endured it not, for he departed, and through the door there seemed to go out as it were smoke.
Athanasius said he was often beaten by Demons, as when he was found in his mountain fort, but when he proclaimed his love of Christ, the Demons beat each other. Once Satan appeared as a tall man, who knocked at the cell of his door. Satan demanded to know why Christians cursed him undeservedly, for he was weak and they were the source of their own troubles. Anthony called him a liar in the name of Christ, and Satan disappeared.
Christians need have no fear of Demons, Anthony said, for they are cowards and liars. They have no power to carry out their threats, but are like actors on a stage. They are overcome with prayer, fasting, the sign of the cross, and faith. Demons, he said, “fear the fasting, the sleeplessness, the prayers, the meekness, the quietness, the contempt of money and vainglory, the humility, the love of the poor, the alms, the freedom from anger of the ascetics, and, chief of all, their piety towards Christ.” But if a person reacts with fear to them, the Demons will increase their attacks.
He said that Demons will often accurately foretell the future, but this is a ploy to make the unwary victim trust them. Demons led Greek oracles astray in this manner. He recommended a test that would reveal Demons: Whenever there is any apparition, be not prostrate with fear, but whatsoever it be, first boldly ask, Who art thou? And from whence comest thou? And if it should be a vision of holy ones they will assure you, and change your fear into joy. But if the vision should be from the devil, immediately it becomes feeble, beholding your firm purpose of mind. For merely to ask, Who art thou? and whence comest thou? is a proof of coolness.
Anthony’s Exorcism Skills
Athansius gives examples of Anthony’s ability to exorcise Demons from others. While he was in isolation, people would bang on his cell door to ask for his help. Many times he would not answer, and the people camped on his doorstep, often becoming healed in the process of maintaining a prayerful vigil there.
Sometimes he answered and told people they would be healed by their own prayer and faith. A soldier who had a Demon-infested daughter sought his help and was sent away with this advice. When the soldier arrived home, he found his daughter free of Demons.
When he was out among the public, Anthony cast out Demons by invoking the name of Christ. Once, he was invited aboard a ship to pray with monks. He noticed a rank smell from the fish and meat—he was the only one who did—and discovered a stowaway, a young man who was possessed by a Demon. He cast it out. Another young man was taken to him, so badly possessed that he ate his own excrement. Anthony cast out the Demon and made the man whole and healthy again. Anthony warned others who healed and cast out Demons not to boast about it, for they would make themselves vulnerable to Demonic attacks.
Importance of Anthony’s Experiences
The account of Anthony’s triumphs over Demons, and his descriptions and advice, laid an important foundation for the Christian perspective on Demons. In subsequent centuries, as cases of Possession were treated by the church, the Demons performed as described by Anthony, increasing the intensity of their assaults and calling in higherranking leaders as assaults continued. They lied, shape shifted, and made accurate prophesies and clairvoyant observations. They were ultimately banished by the name of Christ.
– Athanasius, St. Vita S. Antoni (Life of St. Anthony). Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Available online. URL: https://www.fordham.edu.halsall/basis/vita-antony/html. Downloaded on January 31, 2000.
– Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark, eds. The Athalone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. London: Athlone Press, 1999.